The Glorious Freedom of a Capable Child

My favorite part of blogging are the stories parents and caregivers share with me from all over the world. While the details are always slightly different, the stories usually begin with a common experience: feeling dissatisfied, frustrated or unsuccessful, they sought answers.

And just like me way back when, they didn’t really know what they were looking for – just something that felt right. They somehow happened upon this site and discovered Magda Gerber’s Educaring approach, which intrigued and resonated with them. So they decided to take the plunge and try trusting their babies. They stopped busying themselves by constantly doing and entertained the possibility that their infants might be able to do a few things for themselves (like engage in independent thought, play, develop motor skills, and begin to comprehend real, human language).

As soon as these parents crack open this window, a succession of happy surprises stream in…and so they’re emboldened to open it just a tiny bit more, which means they find more surprises, more clarity and more conviction in their children as capable self-learners.

Here’s one account Jacki from Turkey recently shared with me:

Hi Janet,

Instead of responding to one individual post, I wanted to email you and thank you for all of them! I hope you won’t mind me giving a bit of positive feedback…

A little background info: I’m from Baltimore, but I live in Turkey right now with my Turkish husband and our son, who will turn 1 next weekend. As for parenting role-models, I lost my mom when I was 5 months pregnant, and my mother-in-law is disabled with advanced ALS. My older sister, who is raising three children, is back in the US, and she was grieving deeply for our mother, so we didn’t talk very much. My husband’s cousin has two toddlers, but I didn’t consider their parenting style compatible with my ideas.

Basically, I had no one immediate to look to for guidance, and I was feeling lost.  I was sure someone out there was doing it ‘right’ (as in, right for me), but I just couldn’t find them. Most of the child care practices I observed around me, and the behavior they generated, ran counter to my motherly intuition, my analytical brain, and my common sense.

I came across your site, and it instantly resonated with me. My son was about 3 months old. We had just started sitting him up, giving him tummy time, and even (I shudder and cringe to admit) turning on baby-oriented videos. I felt deeply uncomfortable with it, but it seemed the norm (our friends even encouraged TV as the only way I would ever be able to rest or get anything done during his waking hours), and I didn’t know what the alternative should be.

Once I started reading about how you don’t need to entertain babies and that they should be given the freedom to do what they want in a safe space, our life changed. My son was happier; I was at peace. I tried explaining some of the things I had learned to my husband; he was skeptical (also a scientist), but deferred to my judgment. I continued with what I felt was right, and when we got a nanny to look after him during the day at 5 months, I explained to her and demonstrated as best I could how I wanted him to be cared for: with trust, respect and freedom.

I discouraged propping to sit, standing him up and walking him, to protect his natural gross motor development. He started to walk at about 10.5 months, and then I discouraged holding his hands and trying to prevent his falls, instead encouraging people to spot him while he explored. Now, at nearly 12 months, he’s got the climbing bug, and I am encouraging everyone to let him learn how to navigate stairs, ramps and curbs by himself.

It is interesting how quick people are to assume he is incapable of dealing with these features, without waiting to see what he will do, and they rush to offer their ‘help’. When I ask them to stop holding his hands, they too are skeptical, but when they watch him take control and figure it out for himself, they believe. And the joy on his face is undeniable.

This weekend, all at once, he began to climb stairs on his hands and feet, and he climbed a large outdoor staircase with me behind spotting, but not helping… much to our friends’ amazement.

So this weekend I reflected on how our good intentions as parents and caretakers so quickly and insidiously set up a feedback loop of neediness. We assume the child cannot do something, so we impose our assistance on him. The next time he wants to do it, he looks for our help, as he has gotten used to it, and so we feel that our original assumption was correct, and we continue assisting.

But what a glorious freedom it is, for both child and caretaker, when we wait and trust and let it all unfurl before us in joyful discovery.

My ability to see my son as a whole being is another great benefit of reading your site. I try to speak to him with the same respect and rationality that I would with an adult. This also amazes/puzzles those around me.

When I take something away or prevent him from doing something, I briefly and simply explain why, and he does not complain about it too much (so far, anyway). Even if he does, I calmly acknowledge his feelings and hold the limit, and he quickly settles himself. People say things like, “Wow, it’s like he understands what you’re saying!” I usually just smile and nod, but occasionally I reply, “Why do you assume he doesn’t?” I think my communication with him is off to a good start, and I look forward to fostering that as he grows.

And I’m pleased to report that more and more, my husband is seeing the results and becoming convinced as well… from highly visible things like watching our son learn how to climb stairs by himself, to the subtler things like how he cooperates more if I explain what I’m going to do before I do it. I’m sure that as discipline and communication become even more important to our family, he will continue to support and join in my efforts (and enjoy the rewards!).

Am I perfectly executing the RIE manual in every aspect? No, most definitely not. But even so, the habits I’m trying to establish have already altered the course of our lives in a very positive way, and I am infinitely grateful. Thank you.

Warmest regards,




(Photo by Dennis Hill of fontplaydotcom on Flickr)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Awesome!
    “….. the habits I’m trying to establish have already altered the course of our lives in a very positive way, and I am infinitely grateful.”

    Exactly how I feel.

    Thanks Janet.

    (I’m also a mom living abroad in sort of the same situation!)

  2. Exactly my sentiments too, Janet! Though I wish I had discovered RIE when my son was a baby (I did when he was about 16-18 mo). I also sometimes feel a bit isolated and misunderstood in practising RIE principles, but I keep going, intimately convinced it is in the right. And for sure, my bond with my son has grown and tightened (ironically, as I let him be freer and more independent). And most importantly, I feel like I’m helping him become a strong, resilient, psychologically healthy individual. For all that, I also am eternally grateful to you, your blog, resources and to RIE.

  3. Brilliant ! And well deserved accolades for Janet.

  4. Wow, this is such a genuine and fantastic testimonial of this approach. I never appreciated how much our children can know and understand. But if I respect my own independance, why shouldn’t I respect everyone’s independance around me–and this includes infants and toddlers. They’re smart; they’ll figure it out with just a little guidance from us. Great read! Very well written!

  5. What a wonderful awakening to the process of allowing development to unfold and joy of loving observation!

  6. I love this, and it’s reassuring as a soon-to-be first time mom who has spent the past 3 years really digging into all of the different child rearing/development “philosophies” out there. I know we will face resistance from family and friends with kids (and probably some without kids) to the approach we plan to take, but stories like these are great reminders that my husband and I just need to stick to our guns and let others observe the potential in believing children are capable.

  7. This is such a wonderful post that I can relate to 100%. It’s sometimes quite challenging when people around you just ‘don’t get it’. Great work!

  8. Hi Janet,
    Thank you for all that you do. Your website is a my greatest resource when I get stuck.

    I just had my second baby 5 months ago. A boy. He has mastered crawling on all fours, sitting up, and is now pulling himself up to standing using anything he can. He is getting ready to cruise. We have not been encouraging his development in any way. I was not prepared for such an early mover.

    My question is: When he is pulling himself up to a standing position- he has yet to learn how to get himself back down. He stays up for very long periods of time, sometimes 15 minutes. He then starts to get so tired that his muscles start to shake and he starts to cry. I usually wait a bit before I help him back to the floor, but I wondering what the RIE response would be? Do I just leave him or help him?


    1. Christina says:

      I guess one would help ask first would you like some help, then wait a few seconds and lower him back to the ground, babies and children still need to know that we are there to help if needed, they need to know we will respond to their cues and trust that we are there for them.

  9. I stumbled across you blog on a wet day and was facinated, how things have changed since ours were small. My children are now 22, 19 and 15. We were fairly young parents but in a secure marriage and 25 years later still very much together. We lived abroad and around Britain often far from family and friends. My husband travelled abroad for work and I was often alone making the parenting decisions. I parented from the heart, I had no one to tell me I was doing it wrong (or right!). I never used a gate across the door, or blocked up the stairs. My children learned to navigate, walk and climb in their own time. I never used baby language to communicate, they were just small people and why make them learn English twice?!I could never understand having to explain “moo-cow” meaning cow, or the word “Ta” when thank you or thanks worked very well. All our children are fiercely independent and a complete joy to be with. The eldest teaches in China to underprivileged children, the next one found a job within a week of leaving 6th Form and my youngest is a complete computer whiz deciding to build his own at the age of 14. They are not perfect by any means but they have a strong appreciation of risk assesment which we believe will serve them well in the future, a skill sometimes lost in a world where every waking moment seems to be filled with organised activities for babies and children. Learning to be happy entertaining yourself and making your own decisions is, to us, priceless. If you choose this way of parenting there will be disbelievers but stick with it. Our children are proud and brave…we could not wish for anything else.

    1. How great to be such a natural! Thanks for sharing your story

  10. I love these articles!!! I love the work you are doing. I love how your book cover looks like a sister to mine. Keep it up.

  11. Beautiful. This one is going into my list of great articles for new parents.

  12. Thank you Jacki, for articulating so well what I struggle to put into words. This is a really useful to help explain to our friends what we’re doing and why.
    And thank you, Janet, for everything you do.

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